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Creature Feature

House Sparrows: Nest invaders 

By Wayne Bierbaum 

Last week, my backyard bluebird couple seemed to get extremely angry and fought with a smaller stout bird. The smaller bird was stubborn and kept returning to the nesting box and inspecting it. Only after the male bluebird flew in fast, grabbed the intruder by neck and dropped in on the ground did it finally go away. The bluebird won that skirmish but the house sparrow may return. 

When I was growing up in St. Petersburg, Fla., the city was overrun with the English house sparrow. They found living in the common Washingtonia or fan palms easy and they made colonies among the drooped fronds. They were messy and loud and, when they made nests in vents, damaged buildings and lights. Newspaper articles described how they were crowding out native species and suggested ways to reduce the sparrows’ numbers. At that time, St. Pete wasn’t the only city trying to manage the little pesky birds. They had spread across North America and had crossed into Mexico. 

House sparrows were brought here from England and released in New York City in 1852 and because they adapted well to city life, they quickly because the major bird species of the city. By 1900, it had become common throughout the east coast and was spreading to all the major western cities. By 1950, it was found in all of Central America and into parts of South America. The bird has been introduced to several other areas of the world. In the mid-1800s, they were introduced to both Australia and New Zealand. From there, they spread by ship to many Pacific islands and even Hawaii. 

Since the bird apparently originated in Eurasia or North Africa and has been in North America so long, the English part of the name has largely been dropped. It is now known as simply the house sparrow.  

The house sparrow is a small, tough, pugnacious bird. They are brown, and the males have black markings around the head with a gray chest. The females have tan streaks on a brown background. On the ground, they hop instead of walk. The males will gather in loud courting groups, hopping and chirping while half spreading their wings in a downward position. Their nests are a large messy collection of grass, feathers, plastic, etc.  

They are frequently considered a pest, especially when they make a nest in the dryer vent. They are found underfoot at outdoor restaurants and leave a mess wherever they go. However annoying these behaviors are to us, they are more of a problem to other birds.  

House sparrows compete for nesting sites, evict and even kill the competition. Chickadees, tree swallows, woodpeckers and bluebirds are common targets for nesting rivalry. About five years ago, I saw a bluebird in my backyard in the grass on its stomach with a male house sparrow hopping up and down on it and flapping wings into it. I was able to stop the torment and the bluebird survived but now every time I see a house sparrow around a bluebird box, I remember that episode. I have found that pulling the nest material out of the box as many times as the house sparrow puts it in will eventually get them to leave. 

Even though the house sparrow has spread almost worldwide, their numbers have been declining. In Great Britain, the house sparrow population has been declining since the 1960s and is now about one third of its peak. The Maryland numbers have also been declining but they are still quite common.  

Do your best to discourage house sparrows from nesting on your property and watch for the nesting box invasion.